Socialist Party
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3 May 2007

Oppose legal aid contracts tooth and nail

As a retired legal aid solicitor I would like to welcome John Greene's article [in issue 482] on the effect of the proposals contained in the Carter Review of Procurement of Legal Services. The methods of fee changes are bad enough. Even worse in both the short term and for the future are the market forces proposals involving solicitors in bidding for a chunk of 'market share'.

Peter Soar

These contracts will be exclusive - if you don't get one you cannot do legal aid work. Carter's deliberate policy is to reduce the number of high street firms doing legal aid. The Review argues that the excluded solicitors will be so envious of the lucky ones that they will combine in new firms and make mergers between existing firms.

This City language comes from Lord Carter of Coles who built up an empire in healthcare and then sold it and from his advisers who are all City men; merger specialists, equity financiers - and one solicitor. That one is the senior partner of one of the largest City firms.

One analyst, quoting the firm's own figures, says that the average share of profits for the partners is over 700,000 a year. That is more than the turnover of most high street firms.

In fact, the excluded solicitors will turn to the other work most of them do in their firms, most of which is seen as more profitable. There will be a sharp decline in the number of qualified lawyers in legal aid.

The threat from competitive contracting comes from the idea of creating and then protecting a market in legal services.

Police stations are seen as 'generating market share'. The main police stations will be at the centre of areas - lines drawn on the map - and a few approved solicitors in each area will be invited to bid for a contract. All the others will be out of legal aid work there and then.

The contracts will last only two or three years and will then have to be bid for again. The process of bidding and going through the necessary re-structuring of a firm will be expensive.

Particularly vulnerable will be the black, minority and ethnic firms which by definition are small and cater for clients who are in most need. There will be a pronounced reduction in access and choice and a temptation to lower standards.

As legal aid contracts will be expensive to win and short term, solicitors will be more dependent on the government and less inclined to tackle difficult and controversial cases. Seen against government measures to make the job of the defence in the courts more difficult and to impose restrictive laws in relation to freedom of movement and immigration, these measures on legal aid are the other side of a dirty coin.

John Greene is right; Carter should be opposed tooth and nail.